After a gap of 41 years, two friends meet. One, a retired General, Henrik, lives alone, a widower, in a Hungarian castle with only his faithful retainers. There's a history in the walls of the place. And, tonight, after a 41 years, there is a guest to dinner. Everything is arranged - just as it once was, so many years ago.
The friend, Konrad, arrives and then Embers then gently unfolds, enveloping the reader in the grip of writing that is excruciatingly beautiful (in a truly astonishing translation). The two friends - or is it ex-friends? - finish their meal and then retire to another room, where before the remains of a fire ("Embers"), the General confronts his guest about an incident that occured just after which Konrad vanished from his life. At that fateful hunt, was Konrad about to shoot Henrik? Did Konrad have an affair with Henrik's wife? Does it matter? What is left are but the embers, and those are still worth cherishing for they, too, will pass as life ebbs.
This is an exquisite, utterly griping discourse on the nature of friendship, fidelity, betrayal, love and honour. Given that it's entirely either conversation/dialogue or narrative, the book captures the fin-de-siecle era with astonishing clarity, economy and lyrical precision, never once flagging or losing its grip on the reader. Everything is fully and sharply realized, almost with cinematic brilliance (and this is before writers started writing with an eye to Hollywood options). You can see the characters, the rooms, the table setting, the fine wines and the exquisite meals, even feel the warmth and crackle of the fire.
This masterpiece, written in 1942, was forgotten till its resurrection. Apparently, Márai survived the second World War only to be persecuted by the Communist régime that followed. His books were banned and burned. He fled Hungary in 1948 and died in virtual obscurity in San Diego in 1989. Just a year later, Embers was reprinted in Hungary. It was then discovered by another writer and brought into print - thank God!
Sándor Márai's "Embers" is my choice for the book of the year. I read it through at one shot, unable to let go, and, for days after it lingered in memory like some exotic fragrance or the taste of a truly memorable dish. Not to be missed.